Authors: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German-born British novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

To Whom She Will, 1955 (pb. in U.S. as Amrita, 1956)

The Nature of Passion, 1956

Esmond in India, 1958

The Householder, 1960

Get Ready for Battle, 1962

A Backward Place, 1965

A New Dominion, 1972 (pb. in U.S. as Travelers, 1973)

Heat and Dust, 1975

In Search of Love and Beauty, 1983

Three Continents, 1987

Poet and Dancer, 1993

Shards of Memory, 1995

Short Fiction:

Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories, 1963

A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories, 1968

An Experience of India, 1971

How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories, 1976

Out of India: Selected Stories, 1986

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi, 1998


The Householder, 1963

Shakespeare Wallah, 1965 (with James Ivory)

The Guru, 1968

Bombay Talkie, 1970

Autobiography of a Princess, 1975 (with Ivory and John Swope)

Roseland, 1977

Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, 1978

The Europeans, 1979

Quartet, 1981

The Courtesans of Bombay, 1982

Heat and Dust, 1983 (based on her novel)

The Bostonians, 1984 (with Ivory; based on Henry James’s novel)

A Room with a View, 1986 (based on E. M. Forster’s novel)

Maurice, 1987 (based on Forster’s novel)

Madame Sousatzka, 1988

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990 (based on Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s novels)

Howards End, 1992 (based on Forster’s novel)

The Remains of the Day, 1993 (based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel)

Jefferson in Paris, 1995 (based on Kaylie Jones’s novel)

Surviving Picasso, 1996

A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, 1998 (based on Jones’s novel)

The Golden Bowl, 2000 (based on James’s novel)


The Place of Peace, 1975

Jane Austen in Manhattan, 1980

The Wandering Company, 1985


The novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (jahb-VAH-lah) was the daughter of culturally assimilated German-Jewish parents who were forced to flee to England in 1939, when Ruth Prawer was twelve years old. She became a British subject in 1948 and married C. S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect, in 1951. The couple moved to Delhi, India, where they reared three daughters and Jhabvala became a full-time writer.{$I[AN]9810001080}{$I[A]Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$S[A]Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]INDIA;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}{$I[tim]1927;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

(©Jerry Bauer)

In “Myself in India,” the introduction to Out of India: Selected Stories, Jhabvala declares that despite having spent most of her adult life in India and having an Indian family, she remained European. Her early works, set in India, reflect the detached, ironic viewpoint of an alien. After Jhabvala’s first novel, To Whom She Will, critics designated her the Jane Austen of middle-class Delhi urban society; categorized as comedy of manners, her work was praised for its wit and accuracy of observation. The five novels and three volumes of short stories she wrote during the next fifteen years maintained a similar tone, though it darkened considerably as the self-deceptions of her characters deepened. In the 1960’s Jhabvala entered artistic partnership with the newly founded film production team of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory and started writing screenplays and adapting the works of others, among them Henry James’s The Bostonians and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Howards End; this new genre, in turn, influenced the style and structure of her novels. Thus when A New Dominion appeared in 1972, critics noticed resemblances not to the work of Austen but to that of Forster. Heat and Dust, which followed three years later and is even more complex and experimental, juxtaposes two stories, that of a colonial wife who left her husband for an Indian prince in the 1920’s and that of her step-granddaughter, who fifty years later, goes to India to solve an old riddle and herself becomes captivated by the land. Often designated Jhabvala’s masterpiece, Heat and Dust won the prestigious Booker Prize.

In 1974 Jhabvala moved to New York City; from then on she returned to Delhi only for three months each year. In the novels written since her move to the United States, the international theme expanded. In Search of Love and Beauty, for example, examines the lives of a group of German-Jewish refugees to America over a forty-year period. Three Continents, based loosely on the exploits of an Asian serial killer, tracks relationships between an American family and visiting Indians and Eurasians; the setting shifts from the United States to England and finally to India. Jhabvala continued to collaborate with Merchant and Ivory on films that include The Remains of the Day, which was an overwhelming critical success, and the less successful Jefferson in Paris. Jhabvala has won numerous awards, most of them for her screenwriting; Room with a View and Howards End both won Academy Awards for best screenplay adaptation.

Throughout her writings Jhabvala has remained preoccupied with the problem of alienation and the conflicts of individuals who are geographically and spiritually adrift. Even when the locale changes, the themes remain the same. In To Whom She Will, for example, two lovers are separated by the fact that one is an anglicized Hindu, the other a Punjabi Hindu. Heat and Dust features parallel stories of love and betrayal, each involving a Western woman and an Indian man; the young narrator, a British woman, feels more distant from her Western hippie lover than from the Indian man by whom she conceives a child. In the American novels the theme of alienation becomes even more complex. The members of the immigrant family in In Search of Love and Beauty are strangers in New York; the family members in Three Continents on the other hand, are entrenched in Connecticut yet choose to become aliens in India because they hope to find a spiritual reality there. Poet and Dancer explores the dangerous closeness between two cousins, Angel and Lara. Shards of Memory, placed in Manhattan, traces the history of a family of mixed Indians, British, and Americans who follow a charismatic religious leader called only “The Master” over four generations.

Although her writing is rarely autobiographical, it is always generated by the powerful perceptions of a woman born in Germany, reared in England, matrimonially bound to India, and now artistically active in New York City. It is impossible to thrust Jhabvala into any national or ethnic literary category, and few novelists since Henry James have so powerfully explored the international theme.

BibliographyAgarwal, Ramlal G. Ruth Prawer Jhbavala: A Study of Her Fiction. New York: Envoy Press, 1990. Contains good criticism and interpretation of the novels. Incudes index and bibliography.Booker, Keith M. Colonial Texts: India in the Modern British Novel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Although discussion of the author is not central in this book, what proves engaging is the context into which Booker places Jhabvala’s contribution to India’s prominence in British literature.Chakravarti, Aruna. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study in Empathy and Exile. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1998. Discusses other European authors who have written about India, and Jhabvala’s role as expatriate. Useful for scholars and students approaching Jhabvala for the first time. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Crane, Ralph J. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Twayne’s English Authors Series 494. New York: Twayne, 1992. In a chapter entitled “Sufferers, Seekers, and the Beast That Moves: The Short Stories,” Jhabvala’s first five volumes of short fiction are discussed. Crane maintains that the differences among Jhabvala’s stories reflect her own ambivalence toward India. Includes biographical chapter, chronology, notes, and bibliography.Crane, Ralph J, ed. Passages to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New Delhi: Sterling, 1991. Only one of the essays in this volume deals specifically with short stories. However, much of what is said about theme in the analyses of the novels is applicable to the short fiction as well.Godden, Rumer. “A Cool Eye in a Parched Landscape.” The New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1986, 1, 20. Points out stories in Out of India that exemplify the internal struggle that Jhabvala discusses in “Myself in India.”Gooneratne, Yasmine. Silence, Exile, and Cunning: The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1983. Argues that several related themes inform all of Jhabvala’s fiction. Includes extensive bibliography.Gray, Paul. “Tributes of Empathy and Grace.” Time 127 (May 12, 1986): 90. In Out of India, women repeatedly sacrifice themselves for undeserving men. However, Jhabvala’s Western women choose to immerse themselves in India, while her Indian women have fewer options.Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. “The Artistry of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.” Interview by Bernard Weinraub. New York Times Magazine, September 11, 1983, 64. An important interview/profile, in which Jhabvala explains why she left India for New York City.Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. “Introduction: Myself in India.” In Out of India: Selected Stories. New York: William Morrow, 1986. Jhabvala defines the “cycle” of reactions to India which all Westerners seem to experience. Essential reading.Long, Robert Emmett. The Films of Merchant Ivory. Updated ed. New York: Harry Abrams, 1997. Jhabvala’s contributions to Merchant Ivory films is covered.Mason, Deborah. “Passage to America.” The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1998, 20, 22-23. The stories in East into Upper East prove once again that Jhabvala is a “spellbinding urban fabulist,” whose rootless characters escape from reality in various ways. “The Temptress” is the only story of true redemption.Sucher, Laurie. The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: The Politics of Passion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Utilizes four novels and nine short stories to prove that Jhabvala’s detachment masks her real romanticism, as seen in her interest in feminine sexual politics. Includes bibliography.Urstad, Tone Sundt. “Protecting One’s Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s ‘Rose Petals.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 43-49. “Rose Petals” exemplifies what Jhabvala has stated about how different people react to India’s overwhelming social problems. An excellent starting point for the study of Jhabvala’s short fiction.
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